Welcome to our “Untraining Your Pet” series, where we help you “untrain” your pet from those naughty or annoying bad habits and get them back to being the goodest boys and girls.
Does this sound familiar? You’re at the dog park and your dog is wandering a little too far. So you call out your dog’s name and ask them to “come.” But you might as well have yelled out, “Keep playing,” because they have no intention of coming back to you.
If you know this situation all too well, we’ve got some tips to help your dog learn to come when called. It’s not an easy command to master, but it’s one of the commands every dog should know.
Knowing “Come” Could Save Their Life
Of all the commands your dog should know, coming back to you when called is arguably the most important because it could save their life. Whether it’s stopping them from running into traffic, getting too close to a cliff or avoiding an aggressive animal, getting your dog to stop and come back to you could be lifesaving.
The goal is to teach your dog that coming back to you is better than anything else they might be doing. Hopefully your dog mastering “come” will prevent you from doing things like running after them for three blocks when they decide a squirrel looks like a fun new friend.
Do You Need a New Word for “Come”?
If you have been trying to train your dog to “come” but your command is being completely ignored, it’s possible that “come” no longer has any meaning for your dog (or never did!). So before starting new training sessions, it’s a good idea to change “come” to a new word. You could try “here” or “back” or something fun that won’t be called out by anyone else at the dog park like “hug.” Just make sure you don’t use the word for anything else other than for asking them to come back to you.
Try not to repeat your command word over and over during training sessions as this can cause the word to lose meaning for your dog. If they’re not responding to your command, it’s time to end the training session and try another day.
Remove Tempting Distractions
A high school student trying to do homework with a party going on around them would find it really hard to concentrate. It’s the same situation for your dog. If they’re trying to learn a new command and there are lots of fun distractions happening around them, the training session is probably not going to be too successful.
Start your training sessions inside, where it’s quiet and there are less dogs, squirrels, flying discs, etc., to distract them. Start by getting your dog’s attention with claps, a toy or treat. When they start walking toward you say “come” (or your own cue word) in an excited, happy voice. Reward them with lots of praise and high-value treats or their favorite toy when they come all the way to you. After doing this a few times, say “come” and then show them the treat or toy. This way they’re looking for a reward when you say “come.”
Repeat these steps at further distances and eventually you should be able to say “come” from another room. Once they’ve mastered this, try adding some distractions like other people in the room, other pets, or something else that’s tempting them to play instead of coming to you. It’s important that they master “come” indoors with distractions before you move outdoors. There are many more distractions outside and some that are potentially dangerous if your dog doesn’t come back to you.
Stay Safe When Training “Come” Outside
When you move your training sessions outside, it’s a good idea to keep your dog on a long leash until you know they will actually come back to you and not run off on their own adventure. Start in a quiet area outdoors with few distractions (i.e., not the dog park). Repeat the same training you were doing indoors and once they’re successfully following your command, move to areas with more and more distractions.
When you’re ready to try a training session without their leash, make sure you’re in a fenced area so your dog remains safe if they suddenly forget what “come” means. Using high-value treats they don’t usually get or a favorite toy can help keep their attention on you.
Coming Back to You Should Always Be a Good Thing
It’s important that your dog associates “come” with positive things. If your dog is off-leash and isn’t listening to you, particularly when you really need them to, try saying “come” and walking away from them. If you run after them, they will likely think you’re playing “chase” and will keep running away. But if you walk or run away from them, they will (hopefully) chase you instead. You can also use this walking away technique for training “come.”
Even if they run away from you, they should be rewarded for coming back to you. A successful “come” should always be rewarded, even if they were naughty to begin with by running away. You want coming back to you (even if it takes a while) to be the best thing ever and always a good thing.
You also don’t want “come” to inadvertently be associated with a negative experience for your dog — for example, saying “come” and then they have to leave the dog park, or take a bath, or go to the veterinarian. This will teach your dog that sometimes “come” isn’t a good thing. In these situations, go to your dog and put the leash on them — don’t ask them to come to you.
Training (or retraining) your dog to “come” will take a while — possibly a few months. But it’s an important skill and will be worth it in the end. Just remember that coming back to you should always be one of your dog’s favorite things and be met with lots of praise and positive reinforcement.